You call this camping?
"There'd better be a Four Seasons at the end of this road," said my friend Rebecca as our rented Kia struggled down a steep hill. (Mental note: Don't take a Kia camping in the mountains.) We'd been going in circles for an hour, taking the wrong exits and searching for signs to our campsite.
Alas, there was no Four Seasons at the end of the road. But the accommodations we did find weren't too shabby. Yes, they call it camping, but there was no tent to pitch, no sleeping bag to unroll, no fire to build. At our campsite at Falling Waters Adventure Resort in Bryson City, N.C., eight yurts - insulated circular canvas tents - overlooked Fontana Lake and a pond. Each was furnished with a queen-size bed and a futon and equipped with electricity, a private deck and a skylight for stargazing. And then there was the hot tub a few yards from our yurt. After unloading our bags (mental note No. 2: Don't go camping with a silver Diane von Furstenberg suitcase whose wheels get stuck in the dirt), I climbed into the steaming water to soothe my aching limbs.
"Now, this is my kind of camping," I thought as I felt my muscles relax.
The economy has taken the camp out of camping, making it more appealing to cash-strapped Americans. The new thing is glamping (short for glamour camping), or camping lite. To attract travelers who don't want to sleep on the ground or put up their own shelters, state parks and resorts now offer alternative accommodations: yurts, first used by nomadic Central Asian peoples; teepees; luxury tents; and spruced-up cabins or lodges.
To meet a 25 percent increase in demand for its lodges, Kampgrounds of America is adding 400 to KOA campsites, some with flat-screen TVs and fireplaces and all with full kitchens. Camping, said spokeswoman Lacey Thornton, "doesn't have to be an uncomfortable experience." The campgrounds themselves offer amenities such as outdoor movies, petting zoos and espresso bars.
The luxurious African safari experience was the inspiration behind glamping, but in the United States and Canada, glamping can range from high-end - a luxury one-bedroom tent at the Resort at Paws Up in Montana, for instance, will run you $725 a night in the fall - to comfy for both body and wallet: A two-bed teepee at the Wigwam Village Inn in Cave City, Ky., costs from $60 to $65 a night.
I didn't do much camping growing up in Queens. In fact, I'd been camping only once, with relatives in Wisconsin when I was 13. My mother had forced me into it, and my only memory of it was fighting off mosquitoes. Rebecca, a Jersey girl, also had limited camping experience. Now here we were, in our 30s, two city slickers willing to relive our teenage camping days, but not so much that we would give up the comforts of home.
Falling Waters, right up against the Tennessee border in North Carolina, is known for its comfortable yurts and abundance of outdoor activities. We'd snaked through the Great Smoky Mountains to get there, marveling at the beautiful tapestry of trees and feeling the stress of the city melt away. Near our camp, we saw a sign for Nantahala Village, which advertised a day spa. ("Spa!" we exclaimed in unison.) There was also a restaurant and a general store. It was good to know we would have easy access to modern-day comforts.
The bed in our one-room yurt was swathed in pillows and a tasteful caramel-colored comforter. Rugs covered the pine floor. There was a ceiling fan, but we never needed it: A nice mountain breeze blew in through the three windows and the skylight. A small fridge held bottled water, and there was a coffee maker. Nearby was a CD player.
Each yurt had a theme: safari, country, orchard and so on. We'd chosen Yurt 5, which was named the Lake Yurt, though it turned out to be on a small pond. Really it seemed more country; there was a cowboy hat hanging on one wall and a statue of a cowboy on a bookshelf. The lampshades and tables reminded me of the furniture you can buy at World Market. Call it World Market chic.
The one drawback: We didn't have our own bathroom. But there were shared locking bathrooms a few yards away, each with a shower and plenty of toiletries. On my way there before bed, I noticed that three late-night revelers had taken over the hot tub.